9 Warning Signs of Bad Gut Health and How to Fix It

February 8, 2024
Gut Health

Your gut health has a significant impact on your overall health. A balanced and thriving gut microbiome, which is a diverse community of microorganisms in your digestive tract, is crucial for optimal physical and mental health.

An unhealthy gut, on the other hand, can cause a variety of symptoms and health problems. In this article, we will look at the warning signs of bad gut health and offer suggestions for how to improve it. Lifestyle changes may be all you need to mitigate the signs of bad gut health.

The Importance of Gut Health

Your gut microbiome consists of the 100 trillion bacteria, viruses, and fungi that reside in your intestines.1 Most of the microbiota live in your cecum, a pouch in your colon, but colonies of microbes are living in all parts of your gut. These microorganisms play a vital role in breaking down food, absorbing nutrients, supporting immune function, and maintaining a healthy digestive system.

Research has also linked gut health to mental health, autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular health, and more.

Warning Signs of Bad Gut Health

Bloating, constipation, heartburn, diarrhea, and abdominal pain are typical signs of bad gut health. They may be symptoms of an unhealthy gut microbiome, inflammation, or impaired digestion and nutrient absorption. However, the gut influences your overall health as well. Here are some additional warning signs of bad gut health.

1. Chronic Fatigue

Imbalances in the gut microbiome have been associated with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), a condition characterized by extreme fatigue that does not improve with rest. Other CFS symptoms include unrefreshing sleep, joint pain, headaches, sore throats, tender lymph nodes, difficulties with concentration and memory, and exhaustion after exercise or mental exertion.

When researchers analyzed the stool of people diagnosed with CFS and compared it to the stool of people without CFS, they found that stool samples from people with CFS had reduced gut bacterial diversity, more inflammation-causing bacteria, and fewer anti-inflammatory bacteria.

Blood samples from people with CFS showed increased inflammatory markers. This suggests that chemicals and bacteria from the gut leaked across the gut lining into the bloodstream and triggered inflammation.2

Metabolic dysfunction or inadequate nutrient absorption due to gut issues are additional causes of fatigue. If you have chronic fatigue, talk to your doctor to see if it is one of the signs of bad gut health.

2. Sleep Disturbances

Sleep disturbances are associated with an increased risk of mortality, diabetes mellitus, mood disorders, high blood pressure, heart disease, weight gain, and obesity.

Circadian rhythms regulate your bodily processes. The master clock for human circadian rhythms is found in the suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus in the brain. Circadian clocks in the gut and other organs modify the master clock’s rhythm.

While the master circadian clock follows the light-dark cycle, the peripheral clocks collect environmental and internal signals, including food intake and composition. The peripheral clocks provide data to the central clock.

Interestingly, when mice were fed a high-fat, high-sugar diet, the proportion of bacteria that oscillated with the circadian clock decreased, as did microbial diversity.3

An unhealthy gut can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to insomnia or poor sleep quality. The gut produces a significant amount of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and sleep.

It is important to recognize that most of the studies exploring the relationship between sleep and the microbiome are animal studies, not human studies. However, poor sleep may be one of the signs of bad gut health.

A sleep-deprived woman in bed

3. Food Intolerances

Food intolerances, such as sensitivity to FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) and gluten intolerance, are linked to the microbiome.

FODMAPs are carbohydrates that gut bacteria can ferment. Those who have a lack of diversity in their microbiome may experience digestive symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal pain if they consume these carbohydrates.4

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and other grains. Gluten intolerance is an adverse reaction to gluten that can cause gastrointestinal symptoms along with fatigue, skin rashes, depression, and iron deficiency anemia. A lack of microbial diversity in the gut may be involved in gluten metabolism and intolerance.5

4. Sugar Cravings

Consuming excessive amounts of sugar can negatively impact the gut microbiome, leading to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria. High sugar intake increases the relative abundance of proteobacteria in the gut while simultaneously decreasing the abundance of Bacterioidetes. This can increase inflammation and damage the protective gut lining.6

A high-sugar diet can also deplete short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in the gut, which can increase inflammation and decrease insulin sensitivity.7

High sugar intake, particularly from sources like high-fructose corn syrup, is associated with inflammation and an increased risk of various diseases. Gut health and weight loss (or gain) are connected.

5. Unintentional Weight Changes

Imbalances in the gut can affect nutrient absorption, fat storage, and blood sugar regulation, leading to unintentional weight gain or weight loss.

The two most prevalent groups of helpful bacteria in the gut are Bacterioidetes and Firmicutes. When scientists compared the ratio of Bacterioidetes to Firmicutes in people with obesity versus those with a leaner body composition, they found that people with obesity had more Bacterioidetes.1

When scientists transplanted the gut microbiota from obese mice to normal-weight mice, the mice gained weight. This suggests that the composition of your gut microbiome may influence how many calories your body extracts from the food you eat.8

A person on a scale with a tape measure

6. Skin Irritations

Skin conditions like acne, eczema, and psoriasis may be linked to gut health. Imbalances in gut bacteria can contribute to inflammation and immune dysfunction, which can manifest as skin issues.

An imbalance of gut bacteria can trigger inflammation throughout the body, including the skin. It can also impact metabolism, nutrient absorption, and hormone regulation. All of which can affect skin health.9

7. Autoimmune Problems

Gut microbes play a crucial role in shaping and modulating the immune system. Gut microbes teach your immune system how to respond to pathogens. They assist immune cells in differentiating between dangerous pathogens and harmless substances or beneficial bacteria.

When your immune system inadvertently begins attacking body cells because the markers on the surface of your body cells are similar to the markers on pathogens, you can develop an autoimmune disorder.

Imbalances in gut bacteria may make some autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, worse. Certain harmful bacteria can stimulate an inappropriate immune response, leading to autoimmune reactions.10

8. Mood Changes

The gut-brain connection is well established. The gut releases hormones and molecules that influence brain function, including mood. Research suggests that gut microbiomes in people living with depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are more likely to have higher levels of bacteria that increase inflammation and lower levels of protective bacteria.11,12

Gut problems and inflammation in the nervous system can contribute to anxiety and depression.

9. Migraines

There is evidence suggesting a connection between migraines and gut health. Migraine headaches are associated with some gastrointestinal disorders, such as Helicobacter pylori infection, irritable bowel syndrome, and celiac disease.

Gut dysbiosis, an imbalance in gut bacteria, can cause inflammation throughout the body. Inflammatory chemicals play an important role in migraine development.

People with frequent headaches, especially those accompanied by gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea or vomiting, may have underlying gut issues.13

These are some of the many potential warning signs of bad gut health. In the next section, let’s explore ways to improve these signs of bad gut health.

How to Improve Signs of Bad Gut Health

If you are experiencing signs of bad gut health, there are steps you can take to improve your gut microbiome and promote a healthier digestive system. Here are some strategies to consider:

1. Incorporate Probiotics into Your Diet

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that can support a healthy gut. Probiotic supplements and foods containing probiotics typically contain lactic acid-producing Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus species.

If you choose to use a probiotic supplement, be aware that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate it. Manufacturers are responsible for ensuring that their products are safe and have accurate labeling. This can make it hard to know which ones will effectively support your gut microbiome.14

You can find probiotics in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, and kimchi. Some products, like pickles and yogurt, have forms that contain active cultures, and others do not. Choose products without added sugar and flavorings. It can take time to develop a taste for fermented foods.

2. Incorporate Prebiotics into Your Diet

Prebiotics are molecules found in food that feed your gut microbiota. The most well-known prebiotics are inulin, fructo-oligosaccharides, lactulose, and galacto-oligosaccharides. Your gut microbiota ferments these foods.6 A diet rich in prebiotics can stimulate beneficial bacterial growth and diversity.14

Foods high in prebiotics include:

  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Barley
  • Chia seeds
  • Chickpeas
  • Dandelion greens
  • Flaxseeds
  • Garlic
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Leeks
  • Lentils
  • Oats
  • Onions
  • Soybeans
  • Wheat bran
healthy fruits and vegetables

3. Limit Processed Foods and Sugar

A diet high in processed foods and added sugars can disrupt the balance of bacteria in your gut and contribute to inflammation. Diets high in fats, particularly saturated fats, increase bacterial species that may increase inflammation.15

Instead, focus on consuming whole, unprocessed foods, including plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.

4. Identify and Eliminate Food Intolerances

If certain foods consistently cause digestive discomfort, consider keeping a food diary to identify potential triggers.

An elimination diet can help you determine which foods are causing symptoms, and you can then remove them from your diet to alleviate gut issues. Before eliminating large food groups, talk to a dietician to ensure that your restricted diet is nutritionally sound.

5. Stay Hydrated

Drinking plenty of water is essential for overall health, including gut health. Water helps with digestion, nutrient absorption, and the elimination of waste. Aim to drink an adequate amount of water throughout the day to support a healthy gut.

6. Prioritize Fiber-Rich Foods

Fiber is essential for a healthy gut. It promotes regular bowel movements, feeds beneficial gut bacteria, and suppresses hunger. It can also lower cholesterol levels, modulate your blood sugar, and reduce your risk for heart disease.

When your gut microbiota ferments fiber, it produces short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs may reduce your risk of serious diseases such as metabolic syndrome, bowel disease, and certain forms of cancer.

The average Western diet contains approximately 15 to 25 grams of fiber per day. Diets high in fruits and vegetables may reach 60 grams of fiber per day.16,17

Include a variety of fiber-rich foods in your diet, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, popcorn, seeds, and nuts.

exercise to build bone density

7. Exercise Regularly

Regular physical activity has been associated with a more diverse and resilient microbiome. Exercise stimulates the contraction of the intestinal muscles, which aids digestion and promotes regular bowel movements.

Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week.

8. Get Adequate Sleep

Quality sleep is crucial for gut health. Poor sleep quality affects metabolism, appetite, immune function, endocrine function, and cardiovascular health. Aim for 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night to support your body’s natural healing processes and allow for optimal gut function.

9. Manage Stress

Chronic stress can negatively impact gut health by changing the composition of the gut microbiota. Exposure to chronic stress can also disrupt the barrier lining the gastrointestinal tract. How the gut microbiome impacts the brain and stress response has been studied in animal studies. The connection may be through nerve signaling, short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), disruption of the gut barrier, or activation of specific types of immune cells.3

Find healthy ways to manage stress, such as practicing relaxation techniques, engaging in regular exercise, going outdoors, and seeking support from friends, family, or a mental health professional if needed.

10. Avoid Smoking

Smoking has many effects on the gut, including:18

  • Changes in the gut microbial composition
  • Changes in the gut-skin microbial axis
  • Increases intestinal percent hydrogen (pH)
  • Potentially damaging the lining of the gastrointestinal tract

Quitting smoking is essential to improving overall health, including gut health.

Questions: Ask your doctor about signs of bad gut health

11. Consult with a Healthcare Professional about Signs of Bad Gut Health

If you are experiencing persistent gut issues or have concerns about your gut health, it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional at Invigor Medical. They can evaluate your symptoms, provide appropriate medical advice, and recommend further testing or treatment if necessary.

Improving gut health is a journey, and it requires a holistic approach. By implementing some of these strategies and making sustainable lifestyle changes, you can support a healthy gut microbiome and improve your overall well-being.

Many people look for signs of bad gut health as a potential cause of weight gain. Research is limited, but the association between weight gain and abnormalities of the microbiome has been supported by animal studies.

One potential link between the gut microbiome and weight gain is changes in glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) levels. This hormone increases insulin release, slows stomach emptying, and increases satiety. GLP-1 agonists are medications that work like GLP-1 hormone.

Talk to a treatment specialist at Invigor Medical to learn more about GLP-1 agonists, such as semaglutide, and see if you are a good candidate for this medication.

Get started today with a subscription for Semaglutide.

Author: Leann Poston, M.D.
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